In patriarchal heterosexist societies women do most if not all of the cooking for their families. Women are also usually assigned the tasks of cleaning, raising children, tending the family garden, gathering water and anything else that is considered part and parcel of caring for the family. These feminine tasks are often devalued compared to the activities men spend their time doing. I wholeheartedly support the reevaluation of the significance of these tasks and the movement toward shared responsibility for family life among heterosexual couples, however that is not what I want to discuss today.
I want to explore the religious and spiritual significance of the food cooked by our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and female friends, especially those dishes we would consider to be comfort food. Every person, every family has their own idea of what meals are comfort foods. Bubbe’s matzah ball soup on Shabbat maybe? Aunt Betsy’s Easter ham? Mom’s turkey, gravy and oyster stuffing on Thanksgiving? Your sister’s famous mac and cheese?
I believe comfort food comes from the way women cook. They prepare food out of love, commitment, care and concern as well as for sustenance. Think of the movie Like Water for Chocolate. In the movie, the women who make the food pour their emotions into their dishes and those who eat the food literally embody those emotions as well. Comfort food quite literally provides comfort both physically and spiritually. It seems to brighten even the direst moods. It is magical! Like the movie, I am suggesting that when we eat, we take into our bodies the love, commitment, care and concern transferred to the food by those who made it. In this way, eating has physical as well as spiritual benefits. The spiritual benefit is connected to the physical benefits and therefore not different or separate from the body’s need for nourishment.
Let me share some personal examples. When I would get homesick, while living in Ecuador, Alba, the family’s maid, would make me home-made French fries. That first bite of French fry at the kitchen table in Ecuador made home not seem so far away. (Let me say I ate them a lot! They were definitely my comfort food of choice then.) I also happen to love my mother’s peach cobbler. My mother’s peach cobbler puts a smile on my face and brings back some of my best memories from childhood. Nothing compares to my Aunt Michelle’s pumpkin pie or my grandmother’s sweet and sour cucumbers. If you asked my father, his favorite dessert was his mother’s pineapple upside-down cake that she said she made just for him when she knew he would be coming to an event.
Eating triggers my senses and my memories: my mouth waters; I think of past times I’ve eaten the particular dish and my body relaxes. Once eaten, the food makes me feel full or at least satisfied physically, and it also affects my mood, my patience, my ability to think through things, etc. With a bowl of peach cobbler in me, the stress of the day disappears and I’m able to relax and reflect. Through eating the cobbler, I also feel the love and support of my mother. I am convinced that mom’s cooking is better at helping me cope with life, confront difficult challenges and help me feel better in the midst of bad news than any spiritual advisor or religious figure’s advice to date.
It also brings back memories. With a bite of my grandmother’s sweet and sour cucumbers, I feel the tartness of the vinegar and at the same time think of family croquet games on my Aunt Michelle’s lawn. Those cucumbers also happen to remind me of the time my Aunt Patty broke our glass dining room table when she swore and slammed her fist down onto it in the heat of particularly frustrating hand of Sheepshead (a card game of German origin popular in Milwaukee, WI and the surrounding area).
This theology of food and eating also moves in other directions. When I taste my first pumpkin pie in the fall, I feel reconnected to the cycles of the year at the same time I’m reminded of Thanksgiving and my family. The smell of the barbeque reminds me of warm weather and the hot summer sun. Here, food reconnects us to the cycles of life to the changes of the seasons to the movement of the planet in space as well as to our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and close female friends.
Another direction this discussion of food reawakens my commitment to making the world a better place, tikkun olam. There are millions of women and girls who do not have the relationship to food that I do because they do not have enough to eat… because food is expensive… because there is not enough rain… because they cannot afford to rent or buy land from wealthy individuals or corporations… because they have to spend hours a day gathering water… because they do not have enough money to buy fresh fruit and vegetables… because processed food is so much more affordable… because daily survival is so difficult… because, because, because.
Every time I take a bit of food, I should remember all those who do not have enough to eat. Eating should call us to work toward justice for the hungry because food is essential to existence on physical and spiritual levels. In other words, every bite of my mother’s peach cobbler is physically and spiritually incomplete until I work to feed others as well. Sometimes, I wish I could give every person in the world a big bowl of that peach cobbler. I’m convinced that everyone would feel better because I know I do afterwards. Until then, every time I have a bite, may it serve as a reminder to work to secure justice for the hungry of our world.
Food transforms me. It envelops me in love and care. It calms my nerves. It connects me to the planet’s cycles. It reminds me of growing up. It connects me over and over again to the women in my life and their love, concern, care and commitment to me. It reminds me of home. And, it connects me to my sisters and their families around the world who do not have enough food to eat. I need to do what I can to help feed them. Food is necessary for survival, but it is also powerful and transformative. Let us make sure that all the world has enough to eat.
Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Boston College teaching in its Perspectives Program and an Adjunct Lecturer at Merrimack College. Her most recent publications include: “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).